Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reagan Nostalgia

Opinion column in today's Daily Mississippian (Ole Miss' newspaper) on Reagan nostalgia. Here is my "letter to the editor" response:

To follow up on Shad White’s column “Explaining Reagan Nostalgia” I thought I’d add some more items to the list. By the way, Shad looks like he’s about 20, which means he must have been about two years old when Reagan left office. How can you be nostalgic for something you don’t remember? Anyway, onto the list...

I’m nostalgic for the under the table deals Reagan made with countries like Iran, who we supplied money and weapons to in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages. Reagan than repeatedly lied to the American people about this.

I’m nostalgic for Reagan’s ignoring of the AIDS epidemic. Because it was considered a “gay disease” brought on by a “sinful lifestyle” Reagan didn’t even mention the disease publicly until 1985, after 20,000 Americans had already died.

I’m nostalgic for the economic policies of Reagan that tripled our debt in just eight years, and increased our country’s deficit to 2.6 trillion dollars.

I’m nostalgic for the trillions of dollars Reagan wasted on the “Star Wars” missile defense shield. Maybe we should have paid off our deficit instead.

I’m nostalgic for the support Reagan gave the apartheid government of South Africa, calling Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a “terrorist organization” while Mandela was imprisoned in Robben Island.

But most of all I’m nostalgic for all the covert (and illegal) weapons and training that Reagan and his CIA provided to a young mujahedeen warrior in Afghanistan. What was that guy’s name? Osama something. I wonder what ever happened to him?

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like teachers - I am a teacher. But your critique of Reagan is simplistic. Running the most powerful nation in the world facing off against an atheistic aggressive power (the Soviet Union) that enslaved its and other nation's populations (talk to some who lived under the Soviet thumb to know what real oppression is) requires compromises - it's a messy, complicated task. As a man who has taught in a struggling school and run a program,you should know that sometimes you must make compromises for the larger good. Even merely teaching one struggling student requires compromises - you must pick your battles, focus on the larger picture, and do what you can do to succeed. That's what Reagan had to do to succeed in the larger business of trying to rid the world of the Soviet totalitarian threat and put an end to the 50 year Cold War. Reagan's deficit spending, spending on Star Wars, and support of the mujahadeen all fall into this category. In an ideal world, which you seem to live in, none of those things would have been necessary or desireable. But in a messy world where many are out to hurt our family (the United States) one must do what one must to protect one's family. That's what Reagan did. As for weapons for hostages -I fail to see why this is so horrible. The protection of Americans is a noble goal, and Iran was not the threat then that it is now. And lying to the American people - you can characterize such things as lies, but I'm sure even in your position running a program you've told untruths in order to achieve a larger goal. For example, I'm sure you've told applicants for positions that you'll consider their application and get back to them when at the moment you make such statement you have no intention whatsoever of "considering" their application because you have absolutely no intention of hiring them! Or you've told a student how great his essay was when it wasn't, in order to achieve a larger or different goal. I don't consider such statements lies; I consider them living in this very messy world. You may call yourself a liar if you like. As for AIDS, it was and is, at least in the US (and Reagan was president of the US) a largely gay disease. That doesn't mean it's any less serious, but I'm just correcting your stating that it was merely "considered" a gay disease. And I don't fault Reagan for not mentioning this disease. Lots of diseases kill more and no one screams because the president doesn't mention them. I admire and support all of us who try to educate kids, but from an educated, experienced person like yourself, I would expect more sophisticated (and original - these are such tired old accusations) thinking about the world. In any case, I'll keep reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

One more point as to "arms for hostages." Many on the left today advocate negotiating with terrorists, as opposed to solely relying on military force to defeat them. What is negotation but giving something to get something. Funny how those on the left (and I'm assuming you'd agree with them given your position on "arms for hostages") advocate giving something to terrorists (perhaps giving them a share in power in Iraq, for example) in order to get something (an end to violence) condemn Reagan lo these many years later for exactly that- giving something (arms) to get something (freed American hostages). As teachers we also try to develop "higher-order thinking skills" in our students. Employ those skills in your analysis of Reagan. And Id love to hear your response to my comments.

Ben Guest said...

Thanks for reading and responding. Here is my response to your comments (not necessarily in the order you bring them up):

I do agree with you that negotiating with your enemies is a good tactic. I don’t, however, agree with arms for hostages. That is a solution that, logically, cannot work. All we do is make our enemy stronger. We reward our enemy, with weapons no less, for taking our citizens hostage. Where is the logic in that?

That being said I picked the example as a response to the DM column, where the author explicitly states that Reagan “threatened to use force if the hostages were not released.” Thus, the author (purposefully, in my view) gives the impression that this ultimatum is what led to the release of the hostages when, in fact, it was the arms for hostages deal (that contradicted Reagan’s stated policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and was illegal to boot). The author also writes about Reagan’s honesty as a leader, which is why I pointed out that after the arms for hostages deal Reagan repeatedly lied about it to the American public.

Honesty in one’s professional life is something I value deeply. I have never (in three years) lied to the participants in our program. I’m almost positive that all of them would agree that I was always upfront and honest with them. You may not agree with me but you always know where you stand with me. In this life, that is all you can ask for.

It is the same with anyone who applies to our program and it is the same with my students. If a student’s essay is terrible I tell him that. Now, I’ll do it in an appropriate way, but if I lie to the student and tell him that he wrote a great essay when he didn’t than what good am I doing that child? Anyway, professional integrity is very important to me.

As for not mentioning AIDS, do you think if 20,000 Americans died in five years from another (new) disease the President would fail to mention it? Reagan even states, in his authorized biography no less, that AIDS may be the Lord’s wrath on people living a sinful lifestyle. Furthermore, reporters and congressmen were consistently bringing the subject up but the administration remained silent because, as C. Everett Koop (the Surgeon General at the time) later stated, the feeling among the administration was: “They are only getting what they justly deserve.”

Article here:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/06/08/EDG777163F1.DTL

Finally, the great Soviet lie… I have one fairly good friend who grew up in communist Russia. He was Jewish and left in the late 80’s to escape the dictatorial regime. While we have not talked in depth about his time in Russia he has shared some stories with me. In any event, communist Russia was a dictatorship that completely repressed any free speech and other basic, human rights (did you know that people could be arrested and held in jail for years without being charged with a crime. Some were even tortured and killed. Whatever you say about the U.S., at least we don’t do that…) I’ve often said communist Russia was such a great place they had to wall the people in.

But here is the Great Lie. You write that Reagan was protecting us from the Soviet totalitarian threat. What threat? By the time Reagan came into office Russia was finished.

The Soviet Union had been crumbling under it’s own corruption and incompetence for years. It actually posed little threat to us, because the people were starving and the ideas of religious and political freedom were spreading. This was happening before Reagan came into office. The trillions we spent on missiles and missile defense had nothing to do with it. In fact, that made us less safe because the biggest threat from Russia at that point was that their radar would mistake a flock of seagulls for F-16’s and they would preemptively strike us. By ramping up our missile production we gave the hardline Russian regime more ammunition to stay in power, and made them more trigger-happy (and aren’t you glad that we ramped up nuclear missile production and that Russia matched us. By the way, what is the biggest security threat in the world today? Missing nuclear weapons, you say. Potentially being procured by who? Al Quaeda, you say. You mean the guys we trained and armed in Afghanistan Well, was it worth it? At least Reagan didn’t give Saddam any weapons? I mean besides the chemical and biological stuff. You know, the stuff that he used on his own people…)

If the Soviets wanted to take over the world, if they posed this huge threat to the United States, why didn’t it happen after we lost to Vietnam? The argument at the time was the “domino theory.” Remember that? If we lose Vietnam then we would lose the surrounding countries to the Soviets (like a line of dominoes) and then the Soviets would take over the world. Well, we lost Vietnam. Did the rest happen? Uh, no.

The idea that Reagan won the Cold War is completely wrong. Communist Russia was crumbling from the inside, not because of anything we did. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a quote from George Keenan, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union:

"The suggestion that any United States administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish." He contends that the extreme militarization of American policy strengthened hard-liners in the Soviet Union. "Thus the general effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union."

Article here: http://www.counterpunch.org/blum06072004.html

The bottom line is that Reagan was one of the worst Presidents we have ever had, but he is remembered fondly because he was an excellent speaker and he looked good on a horse.

R. Pollack said...

Though other diseases kill more Americans, not so many are so easy to prevent.

And there's a revelation of bias in an irrelevant adjective: "facing off against an atheistic aggressive power."

Dave Jones said...

Since Robbie beat me to the punch (Always!) by pointing out the inanity of the "atheistic" comment, I'll add this: though we can't take Ayn Rand too seriously, she gets credit for teaching us that religion does not have a monopoly on morals.

Now I don't know how much useful insight I can add here besides more tit-for-tat argument, but I largely agree with Ben here. I'd like to add to his list of faults the purposeful deregulation of the American food industries, whose payroll he and his Republican allies were on, which resulted in the unsafe meat scandals of the '90s in addition to the ghettoization of the plains states via working conditions mirroring those described by Upton Sinclair. Thanks to him, factories all over the western part of America have high turnover rates, pay slave wages, actively import illegal immigrants to fill the gaps, etc. Trickle down economics indeed.

And that's Reagan's greatest crime: the swindling of the working American and simultaneous promising that it's all for his benefit. This is no more manifest than in the whole "Born in the USA" campaign trail deal, in which a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War and shame of American Poverty was appropriated in the name of blind patriotism. It was all there for everyone to hear in majestic irony.

As far as the foreign policy goes, I don't see how Reagan "had" to do any of what he purportedly "had" to do in his "larger business." It's true that these criticisms are hackneyed liberal standards, but so is the vague conservative defense that it was all necessary to protect Americans. Since when did we have the right to mold the world in our image? Since when was it our moral imperative? The chaos we sow all around the world to "protect" Americans in the shortrun always cause mroe problems in the longterm, evidenced by Al-Qaeda, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine just to name a few. What good do we do, exactly, besides nominally change forms of government around the world that fail and fail and fail?

Of course, we didn't even do that in South American nations during Reagon's tenure, we just put whoever we wanted in power.

So there's a few disjointed thoughts for y'all. The overall picture is that the conservative forces in America misguidedly employ moral and fear tactics to sell Americans a false view of the world. We fight endless financial battles against drugs, terror, education, unfriendly foreign governments for no tangible reason and benefits other than morality steeped in backwards interpretations of Christianity. Reagan set the gold standard for the sale: a picture of me on a horse there, some jellybeans there, and voila! I can be the next Caesar by convincing the people to love me while I cheat them and lie. The Bushes didn't take long to follow his lead.

Are we our brother's keepers? Maybe, maybe not. If it's true, though, Reagan made a horrible mess of it all both internally and externally. If he was looking out for the middle class, maybe he could have significantly - note, significantly - raised minimum wages and worked to provide healthcare for Americans rather than give big corporations incentives and permission to regress on those issues, and maybe he could have relaxed a bit with Star Wars and his contras and his lust for oil, oil, oil and worked a little more honestly and diplomatically for social justice throughout the world.

So again, nobody go crazy with the personal attacks, I'm writing this tired because I can't concentrate enough on anything else to do anything else, but hopefully this gives someone something to think about, especially in terms of the use and misuse of morality in politics and reflecting on what issues it is or is not meaningful for politicians to focus on.

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying the debate so I'll take up more of your comments space responding to your responses, for the last time - I promise! First to "Robbie" (I don't know you but I guess Dave Jones does!): I agree, AIDS is very easy to prevent, and a president need not tell us how to do so, or dedicate much money to promoting preventative measures. Don't sleep around or inject yourself with drugs for entertainment. Secondly, I hardly find it irrelevant that the USSR was aggressive - that's why it was a threat! And it's not irrelevant that it was atheistic either - any nation that denies God and forces its people to do so as well does so at its, and the world's, peril. I admit a bias in favor of God - me and most humans throughout history.

To Ben: First, I'm not saying I think negotiating with enemies is a good thing, but only that those on the left advocate doing so now, but condemn Reagan for doing it then. Any aid we give to our enemies - arms or not - helps them in their efforts to do us harm. Financial aid, land, trade benefits, all can add up to a greater threat to us. Negotiating with enemies no matter what you give up makes them stronger. That's why I'm not a fan of it, but I understood why Reagan did it. He didn't do it because he loves Iranians - he did it to free Americans.
Second, not telling a student his writing is terrible, but rather doing it in an "appropriate" way, is also a form of a lie - if terrible was your honest reaction, telling a student as an assessment of his work that it, for example, "needs work", is not a true expression of your assessment.
Third, I do believe Reagan's arms race helped accelerate Soviet demise, and so does Gorbachev, as he's admitted. And it partly doesn't matter whether these methods worked to end the Cold War as Reagan intended or not - they may or may not have had their intended effect, but I can't impugn the man for taking a reasonable course to protect us from the Soviet threat.
Also, I agree the USSR was crumbling from within, but how much did we know of that then? This is 20/20 hindsight. In any event, a nation need not be internally peaceful or wealthy to be a great threat. Bin Laden doesn't even have a nation and is. All one needs is weapons (which the Soviets had) and the will to use them. And one would have needed a crystal ball to see that nuclear weapons would end up floating around and being the threat this is today, so I can't blame Reagan for not seeing that coming. Moreover, we trained and armed those who now are our enemies, but they weren't then, the Soviets were. Rather than speculating who would later be our enemies and not helping them then, Reagan chose to defeat the USSR, which was our immediate enemy and had been for 50 years.
Finally, I'm shocked you seem to think the Soviets posed no threat to us. This would be a revelation to generations of Americans. Kruschev (sp?) said he'd bury us; they pointed missiles at us; they tried to point them at us from Cuba. And I believe that the fear regarding Vietnam was that Chinese-backed communism would spread. In any event, IT DID SPREAD: Cambodia and Laos fell to the communists. Ben, you lived in MA, so have I. Ever talk to some of the Cambodians living in Lynn or Lowell? They'll tell you Khmer Rouge horror stories, much worse probably than those told by your Russian friend.

Finally, just a point to Robbie: I'm no fan of foreign adventures either, but I don't put arming the mujahadeen to try to keep an aggressive enemy from gaining any more allies on par with direct intervention, like in Iraq. The immediate good that it did was prevent the Soviets from spreading into Afghanistan and threatening India, etc. We all have the advantage of being able to look back and see how some steps those in power in the past caused problems in the future, but they could not have foreseen the threat these guys became to us, and neither could you have had you been in power then. Critique Reagan, or any president, or any one for that matter, based on what was reasonably known at the time.

Anyway, thanks for the spirited debate. You're a bright (but misguided) :) group of men.

Ben Guest said...

AIDS may be easy to prevent but it takes a ton of money and research to cure. Or should we just let people with AIDS die?

Actually, most humans throughout history haven’t believed in God. God is a relatively new invention (I’m assuming, of course, you’re talking about the Christian God, our Lord and Savior).

I understand that you don’t agree with the tactic of negotiating with our enemies. You implied that I do agree with this tactic (I do) and with the exchange of arms for hostages (I don’t). In a broader sense if you close off negotiations with those who our enemies than you close off any chance of diplomacy (more on this in a minute) and you threaten to reduce the whole encounter to us versus them (sound familiar) with no chance for understanding why people may be opposed to us (except for empty clich├ęs like, “They hate us for our freedom.”) You run the risk of reducing individuals to words like “evil.” Once this happens anything is acceptable (see Ghrab, Abu; South Africa, apartheid; slave trade, North Atlantic; Americans, Native).

Disagree with you that telling a student his work is terrible in an appropriate way is the same as lying to him.

I do agree with you that hindsight is 20/20. You act as if we discovered all of this after the fact. We didn’t. Plenty of people at the time felt that the Soviet Union couldn’t sustain itself (which it couldn’t), plenty of people felt that “Star Wars” was a colossal waste of money (which it was), plenty of people felt that cutting taxes and increasing spending didn’t make economic sense (it doesn’t), and plenty of people (especially in Massachusetts) felt that nuclear proliferation was a huge threat if we increased nuclear production (which it was). No crystal ball needed, just some intelligence and common sense.

I do agree with you that Russia posed a huge threat to us in the 50’s and 60’s. My point was that by 1980 they did not pose a significant threat. By the way, the closest we came to WWIII was Cuban Missile Crisis. And how did we avert that? Come on, I know you know. If you know the difference between Chinese Communism and Russian Communism you know the answer to this. If you know the history of the Khemer Rouge you know the answer to this. How did Kennedy avert WWIII? Through backchannel communications with Khrushchev. I.E. negotiating with our enemy. But you don’t favor negotiation with the enemy…

With or without our involvement in Afghanistan the USSR would have lost. You know why? Because, as everyone from FDR to HG Wells understands, occupations of foreign countries are doomed to failure (see Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and every country in Africa).

I agree that it was difficult to predict Bin Laden would turn his sights on America. But, if history has shown us anything, it is that supporting repressive regimes (apartheid South Africa, the Taliban, Saddam, Mobutu, the Contras) always comes back to bite you. For this very reason arming the mujahadeen was illegal (not that Reagan cared)? Do you know why? Because Congress (our elected officials) was concerned about blowback. When you support bad people bad stuff tends to happen. 9/11 is the ultimate example of blowback. So, even if we couldn’t predict exactly what would happen by supporting and arming an extremist group of Muslims history tells us that it is probably not a good idea.

At the very least, you have to acknowledge that Reagan was on the wrong side of all of these choices. History has proven that. If you feel that he couldn’t reasonably discern any other options, well live in that fairytale world if you like...

Gavin said...

Just have to respond.

1) Most diseases cost lots to both prevent AND cure. AIDS costs $ only to cure. Try to prevent all deaths (those who happen to reside inside their mothers as well), but let's have some perspective - communities threatened by AIDS could have stopped its spread w/out presidential intervention. Much harder for cancer, heart disease sufferers, etc. to do so.

2) Only reason I bring up the "negotiating w/terrorists" at all is b/c you condemn Reagan for doing it while advocating that we do it now. Hypocritical.

3) In order for you to hold that people "always know where they stand with [you]," if you believe an essay is "terrible," saying anything but "terrible" to the student doesn't let him "know where you stand", and is then a lie.

4) True, many believed these things about USSR, etc. But the reasonable, and safe, calculation at the time was to not take the chance that USSR would crumble. What if this estimation were wrong? Too risky to take that chance. Too many could die. If an armed gang were planning to attack your home or school, you would not sit back wringing your hands and hope they'd break up like the Beatles before they launched an attack; rather, you'd do what you believed necessary to protect your family/school/fellow Americans. That's what Reagan did. Had he taken the risk and been wrong you and I might not even be here now, or at least would not be able to have a free conversation on the internet today.

5) Again, I only bring up the "negotiating w/enemy" thing b/c you oppose when Reagan did it, but favor it apparently in all other cases. Knee-jerk anti-Reagan sentiment. (As to Khmer Rouge: My ex-gf's father murdered by KR; as a severely malnourished child she escaped from concentration - or "re-education" -camp by moving at night through jungle to avoid detection surviving on dirt and bugs until could make it to Thai border. Should Reagan have taken the chance that those political theorists were right about crumbling USSR and run risk that you and I would have to try to escape from "re-education" camps too??? Ask Khmer refugees if they would want to take that chance again.)

6) FDR and HG Wells were wrong. Occupations don't necessarily fail. Examples: the formerly independent country of Hawaii still occupied - and successfully -by US; England still occupied by the Normans; US still occupied by Europeans; in fact, any place on earth not still inhabited solely by descendants of original inhabitants is occupied - and remains so - probably as a result of military invasion.

7) I suppose you would have just let USSR take over Afghanistan. Odd - you want to negotiate w/our enemies and terrorists (and thereby bestow benefits on them) and you don't worry about "blowback" in that case, yet you wouldn't want to arm them in order to use them to fight our enemies for us (like arming mujahadeen to fight USSR). Curious.

Nice debating you, Ben et. al.

R. Pollack said...

The rate of AIDS transmission dropped because of a cultural awareness of the danger of unprotected sex. That change could have happened sooner, very easily, and such a difference could have saved many lives. The President was in a position to help, but didn't. I don't especially fault him for that. A lot of people wouldn't consider cultural leadership as a central role of the President (though I think they're wrong). I do fault him for his attitude about the disease, which was informed by an attitude about homosexuals, which was archaic and bigoted.

(Not "sleeping around" would surely be a good idea, but encouraging condom use to the sexually active is demonstrably more effective than encouraging abstinence to the sexually active. Even in conservative and religious regions, "chastity pledges" have typically made negligible differences in teenage sexual activity -- by some accounts slightly INCREASING rates of anal and oral sex.)


The irrelevance of the formal irreligiousness of the USSR might be demonstrable, I believe, by the fact of horrendous monstrosities being perpetrated throughout history with no correlation to religious conviction. Islamic governments, Catholic governments, Protestant governments, non- or a-theistic governments all have acted atrociously. For what it's worth, despite the various deisms and theisms and religious symbology of the American Founding Fathers, the US Constitution represented at its inception the most forthrightly and radically non-religious/non-theistic government in the world. That's not the same as forthright rejection of religion, of course, (a majority of its framers had some brand of religion themselves) but it did mark a profound departure from European norms and assumed as a foundational principle that official establishment of a religious denomination would be more perilous than official silence.

The U.S.S.R.'s coercion of the religious sentiment of its people was a violation of their freedom, but demanding atheism is no worse than demanding Islam or Christianity (both of which have been done historically), and I do not believe it can be demonstrated to bode worse for that nation's future.

In other words, it's irrelevent to the degree of virtue of Reagan's actions.

Ben Guest said...

Thanks for putting your name to your comments. The anonymous stuff is weak. Robbie and Dave are two of the teachers in our program, by the way...

Once again, to respond:

1) True. It is relatively easy to stop the spread of AIDS. All the more reason for the President, with his powerful bully pulpit, to mention the disease. As I stated earlier, the only reason he didn’t was to cater to the religious base that felt AIDS was God’s way of punishing gay people. If 20,000 Americans died from West Nile Virus or Avian Bird Flu do you think it would go unmentioned by the President of the United States?
2) I believe in diplomacy. Negotiation is a part of diplomacy. I call Reagan on this because: he broke the law by trading arms for hostages; trading arms for hostages is stupid; he lied about it repeatedly to the American people. As stated before this was in direct response to the original DM article where the author lauded Reagan for his tough stance against the Iranians. Point of fact, it was exactly the opposite, and when the truth came out the President lied to cover himself.
3) You and I will just have to agree to disagree on this.
4) Reagan’s calculation was not reasonable at the time (in my opinion) and certainly not safe (by any objective measure). The ramp-up of nuclear weapons has led directly to the threat of nuclear proliferation, with the most alarming possibility being that a terrorist group may procure and use one. The covert support of the mujahadeen led directly to the rise of Bin Laden and indirectly to the rise of the Taliban. As stated earlier, at the very least you have to acknowledge that Reagan is on the wrong side of history here.
5) Khmer Rouge was a brutal dictatorship. Finally, you and I agree on something. However, your implication that American’s were under the risk of an invasion from the U.S.S.R and that Reagan couldn’t run this risk is just dumb. By the way, who finally ended the Pol Pot’s regime? Communist Vietnam.
6) You are correct sir. There have been plenty of successful occupations throughout history, including the United States by England and other European countries. Of course, it took about 400 years and a policy of genocide to completely pacify the native population. Let me amend my statement and say this: Occupations in the modern age of warfare (say from 1920 on) are doomed to failure (unless you have overwhelming superior numbers and arms and are willing to completely wipe out the native population). Why are occupations doomed to failure? Because the native population has nowhere to go. The history of the world over last 85 years proves this.
7) Yes, I would have. The U.S.S.R. would have still lost. See number 6. Rebels would have hidden in the mountains for years and won a war of attrition (which is what happened). If we don’t interfere in other country’s affairs there is no blowback, and we don’t have to deal with people like Bin Laden or the Contras or Mobutu or apartheid South Africa…

Anonymous said...

To Robbie about religion: I think that USSR was "atheistic" is relevant to assessing Reagan as president. I think a nation's gov't demanding atheism - demanding rejection of God - is horrific, and MUCH worse IN AND OF ITSELF than demanding that a nation's people take a particular approach to praising God. Perhaps you're right that neither bodes any worse than the other for a nation's future, but in my view God works in ways we don't understand so I believe it probably does bode worse to demand atheism, but I can't demonstrate that. I will point out that the atrocities committed by communist nations in the last century were probably unrivaled in history in their scope (but one could argue that was so for other reasons, I realize). In any case, mandating atheism puts souls at peril and is Satan's handiwork, but I realize that's a particular religious viewpoint. Thus, I think the USSR was very "bad" (for lack of a better word) b/c of its official atheism and that Reagan should be viewed positively for taking a hard line against a "bad" country. Reasonable people (such as yourself) can differ on this, I concede.

As to US Founding Fathers' approach: indeed, outright rejection by a nation's government of God (USSR)is different than official silence (as in US Founding Fathers). That's a critical difference, IMO. Moreover, you know there's a valid debate over how much the FFs really wanted to keep religion out of the public square - whether they really advocated official silence. It was acceptable then to have state governments and religion intertwined. Only with the incorporation doctrine in the 20th century did the US Sup. Ct. apply the Bill of Rights, inc. the First Amendment, to the states. One can only argue then that the FFs wanted to separate FEDERAL gov't and religion and didn't see state gov/t/religion entanglement as a problem. And even in the case of the fed gov't, I seriously doubt they would support the extreme approach taken today by cts in driving any "taint" of religion from the public square. In any case I enjoyed your analysis.

To Ben: I'll just make 2 points.

1) On occupations: I see no reason to draw a line at 1920 or so and say occupations after that point necessarily fail b/c the native populations have nowhere to go. If anything, it's easier for native populations to evacuate (what w/refugee laws, UN assistance, more modern modes of transportation) than pre-1920. I'll concede occupations as of late haven't worked (although I think China is occupying Tibet w/out much trouble), but I don't think your rationale supports your point that they CANNOT. And I don't think this would have been enough for me, and it wasn't enough for Reagan to go on in just ignoring USSR's occupation of Afghanistan. USSR occupied Eastern Europe w/few uprisings (and those that did happen they brutally suppressed) by the time Reagan was elected that I think it was reasonable for him to believe USSR could do the same in Afghanistan w/out our support of rebels.

2) Your original post which drew my response seemed to me to be just another hackneyed list of knee-jerk anti-Reagan rantings w/no thought behind them. You've shown by providing intelligent support for your positions that you're not just parroting these standard old lines. I think your editorial to the paper could have expressed your points better had you included some of this level of analysis, rather than just repeating those same tired lines. If you had, I would not have called your analysis "simplistic" initially.
In general, we just analyze things from different perspectives. I try to put myself in that context - that time and place and circumstances and degree of knowledge - and determine whether a president's reactions were principled and reasonable given what was known at the time, rather than analyzing a president's actions based on what we now know. I realize you'll say that many then made the same objections you're making now so Reagan could have known, but many supported his approach as well. And I agree w/his taking those analysts' side and trying to deal w/the enemy before him AT THAT TIME and his putting US security AT THAT TIME first on his list of priorities and not taking any chances. I believe he saw American security as his prime responsibility, above future threats, above economic health, etc. I think Bush does as well. I think these threats are significant and intelligent theorists may have different viewpoints, but like Reagan I don't think I'd take the chance that these theorists might be wrong. Consequences could be severe (or maybe not), but I suppose he didn't want to risk it.
I see your points, but I think this hindsight analysis will always show some good and some bad coming from any move a president makes (that's one reason I think we should analyze only in context). For example: Marshall plan seen as a good move, but we ended up creating an EU that we now have to compete with-so would you condemn FDR b/c Marshall Plan created a competitor?; same w/rebuilding Japan. New Deal helped bring us out of Depression (necessary and good in context) but we ended up w/ a huge, unwieldy, expensive fed. gov't. End of colonization of Africa seen as advancement of freedom, but we ended up causing a lot of chaos by leaving. I think presidents make many decisions based on what's known at the time and the risks then existing and have to accept the hypothetical risks and many times have to accept the hypothetical long-in-the-future possible outcomes. I think that's what Reagan did. We can always find bad results from different actions, so I think we need to judge presidents in context.
This is just my humble opinion. But this exchange has shown me that your students in Mississippi have been lucky to have such thoughtful teachers. By the way, Ben, I'm considering writing an article for publication on attorneys leaving the law to teach k-12 (I've come across a # of them) - so tell MSBLU8 to update her blog already! - I may need to get in touch w/her to seek her perspective to include in said article, if she acquiesces.
Thanks for a great debate, Ben et. al. You should do more political commentary (or maybe ed policy commentary) on your blog. It'll give me more opportunities to fill up your comments space!
Sincerely,
Gavin (forgot my p-word so had to sign in again as anonymous!)

Anonymous said...

One final point I have to make, Ben, w/regard to your view that you would not have tried to stop Soviet expansion into Afghanistan b/c occupations always fail and USSR crumbling anyway: Applying this same logic, you would have opposed US involvement in WWII. Germans would have failed anyway b/c occupations (of Netherlands, France, etc., and anywhere else might have tried to occupy after succeeding in these places)inevitably fail. So we should just have waited it out like Reagan should have. And I guess liberation of France was "interfering in other country's affairs" as well and we shouldn't have done it b/c now we have the blowback (which I guess would be all those little neo-Nazi groups around the world). So trying to stop Nazi expansion not justified b/c (1) occupations fail anyway, and; (2) liberating France would have been "interfering in other country's affairs." Couldn't justify stopping Nazis to save those in concentration camps either b/c that would have been "interfering in other country's affairs" also.

Also, you have to judge FDR harshly b/c he allied w/Russia (which you would say is helping a bad group like mujahadeen). But I say FDR did so to stop a bigger more immediate threat (Nazis) like Reagan armed mujahadeen to stop bigger more immediate threat (USSR). (And both could be said to have been wrong about the threat - using your logic, you would have to say FDR was wrong about the threat b/c occupations inevitably fail, so threat was not that great). Both knew they were allying w/snakes but there were more immediate concerns to be dealt with. Also, using your reasoning, have to condemn FDR for allying w/Stalin (a bad guy) also b/c doing so would and did create blowback, and that blowback was to increase Russia's power, and then the long Cold War. So, you must really hate FDR too and think he was on the wrong side of history on these issues.

Ben Guest said...

Fascism, the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Up until your last post I respected your argument. Disagreed with you, but respected your argument. But now, like the spoiled child who doesn’t get his way, you stamp you feet and yell out “Well, you must have supported the Nazis.” All of your other arguments have been disproved and now you have nothing left. What’s next? Are you going to point out my spelling mistakes?

In the event that you really do believe what you wrote, then you are an idiot. Yes, I support our actions in WWII. Actually, I think we were too slow in responding (and history has certainly proven this). One, we were attacked. Two, our allies were attacked. Three, Nazi Germany posed a clear danger to us, and our allies. Much more so than say, Iraq. Four, I think that once Hitler got the atomic bomb he would have used it. Five, I think that FDR (a liberal, through and through) was one of our greatest presidents.

By the way, let’s not forget that it was Prescott Bush who made the family fortune through business dealings with the Nazis. Good conservative capitalist, that Prescott. Never let a little genocide get in the way of making some money. Or as you might say, sometimes you have to work with bad people to achieve your goals. But do I think this means you support genocide, or the Nazis, or apartheid South Africa. No, of course not. Cheap shot, but I guess it is all you had left...

Anonymous said...

Ben: Didn't mean it as a cheap shot, and I was not implying that you would have supported Nazis - only that YOUR LOGIC would have lead to the US not affirmatively fighting them in Europe. I was merely applying your logic to a different scenario - a less ambiguous one that Afghanistan - to challenge your rationale for opposing involvement in Afghanistan. You opposed it because: (1)occupations (like that of USSR of Afghanistan) always fail, so just wait them out; (2) US should not involve itself in other nation's affairs; and (3) USSR crumbling anyway, so just wait it out. Applying this same logic would lead one to conclude that the US should not have gotten involved in WWII or fought back the Germans (just wait out their occupation of Europe; we shouldn't get involved in Europe's affairs; and - well, the crumbling prong of your analysis doesn't apply in Afghanistan context- but 2 out of 3 do). All I was doing was using a standard argument form - applying your reasoning to an alternative (less debatable) scenario to test it. No personal attack intended. By showing that your rationale for OPPOSING U.S. fighting occupations doesn't hold up (IMO) when applied to the WWII scenario, I'm testing your rationale.

In your last post you offer contrary arguments actually SUPPORTING the US opposing occupations, at least in WWII scenario: "One - we were attacked (until we declared war only Japan had attacked us, I believe). Two, our allies were attacked (true - and formerly free countries were being attacked by USSR, plus if we were to apply your premise that we shouldn't get involved in other countries' affairs, this wouldn't matter anyway). Three, Nazi Germany posed a clear danger to us, and our allies (an opinion, and Reagan and many others felt this way about USSR)Much more so than say, Iraq (I agree, but not much more so, IMO, than USSR, in my and Reagan's, and many others' opinions). Four, I think that once Hitler got the atomic bomb he would have used it" (Reagan and many others believed that USSR -which already had the bomb when invaded Afghanistan- would be less hesitant to do so than we were).

Thus, it seems that you oppose US fighting occupations in some situations (like USSR occupation of Afghanistan), but support it in others (like German occupation of Europe). A fine position, but previously you seemed to express an opposition to fighting occupations ALWAYS (b/c they always fail, etc.)

In sum, your arguments OPPOSING US opposition to occupations per se don't hold up when applied to Germany/Europe context, and therefore can't be used as a basis for opposing US opposition to USSR occupation of Afghanistan. And your contrary arguments - those SUPPORTING US opposition to occupations (in Europe during WWII) I think can be applied just about as validly to the Afghanistan/USSR context.

As always, thanks for the enjoyable debate.
Gavin.

R. Pollack said...

Gavin:
The central problem with arguments that involve the mysterious or unknowable work of God is that they effectively excuse their arguer from the debate and self-criticism that it nurtures, regardless of his assertions. In theology there are perhaps unanswerables, as a mere result of the nature of the thing, and I'm not sure that's problematic of itself: applying them in such a way that allows you to make assertions (about matters of war and peace!) that, by definition, cannot be defended rationally, because they rely on spiritual intuitions or points of faith or dogma, is at best intellectually suspect.

It's commendable that you concede the impossibility of demonstrating such assertions, and thus that reasonable people can disagree with them; it seems to me, however, that definitionally non-demonstrable assertions should not be swallowed whole, and certainly should not be used to justify foreign policy.

And though it's not relevant to any debate on this blog, I also wonder about your assertion that mandating atheism puts souls at peril. I would agree, actually, in so far as mandating any kind of thinking is detrimental to the soul of man (which I don't take to be immortal, and which you might be more comfortable calling the mind). And maybe you just mean that it hinders evangelism, and thus risks the immortal souls of those who might otherwise have been reached by the gospel. But surely Christianity (I assume that's what we're talking about, at least essentially) is not subject to mandate, for or against, as it most emphatically perhaps of all major religions concerns itself with the inner life (as the Christian is uniquely made not by knowledge or practice or culture or declaration, but by belief). And, indeed, Russia is a powerfully Christian nation today, despite the most sinister efforts of the Marxists.


To the other side of our debate:
Most arguments about the "Founding Fathers" are fallacious, since the entity itself is something of a cultural contrivance. Insofar as the category existed, it was not by many measures a homogeneous one. It included some who were rather devoutly Christian after one denomination or another; some unabashed deists, taken by many as heretics, who may or may not have beleived in a personal God or an afterlife; and it may well have included plain atheists to boot (note that atheists were a lot less sensitive in those days to poetic invocations of deity, being as they were somewhat better educated in the Classics, where such is a lovely commonplace).

So we have to be wary, I think, of arguments that attempt to establish what the Founding Fathers "really wanted," since some among them really wanted really different things, and the Constitution is a document of extraordinary and radical compromise and cooperation among diverse parties.

It is possible, it seems to me, that certain legal principles that were clearly not practiced in the 1790s (like exclusion of religion from state governments) may well have not been pushed because of political realities of the time, while they are nevertheless more consistent with the spirit of the document (see, for another example, slavery). The "extreme approach taken today" that prohibits religion "from the public square" seems more extreme in arguments that don't carefully define "public," where the vagueness of that word may often lead to sloppiness of thought, sophistry, even outright deception. It is important that "public" means "official" or "state" or "government," and not "in the open." "Public" demonstrations of religion are legally kosher, even when they're in the "public square." People who complain about them can be ignored at no greater peril than is caused by any other ignoring of complaints. It is official, government demonstrations -- because they amount to endorsements -- that are prohibited, and this seems to me perfectly in the spirit of the Constitution and the American style of freedom (I am less free if my tax dollars are used to promote your religion -- you are not less free if they're not, and you are free to use your dollars to promote it). Many (not all) of the Founding Fathers would have been less firm about that if they conceded it, and some wouldn't have conceded it at all (or would have conceded it federally while understanding the relation of state to federal government differently than we do now); but that's not a successful argument unless our loyalty is to those particular men rather than to what they helped to create: many of them also owned slaves, and DID object to any language that was critical of slavery (read Jefferson's original drafts of the Declaration of Independence, and the hostility toward the Crown's encouragement of slavery, which language was "cleaned up" politically before the version we received). Despite the failures of the Founding Fathers, we subsequently realized that the spirit of the Constitution was successful where many of its writers were failures, and slavery ended as a shameful and unamerican practice.

It's been said before that God was wise enough to create poems wiser than poets.


I mention the radical non-religiousness of the federal constitution only to demonstrate that there is no linear correlation between offical state godliness/godlessness and national success. It was not clear that you were asserting the opposite (only that there is mysterious and nondemonstrable risk, on spiritual or theological grounds, of overtly atheistic government beyond the risk of overtly and coercively religious governments of any other stripe), but I thought it was worth pointing out as an aside since the line which is so hostile to atheism (moreso than to practicing "false" religions) often tends slowly and almost unperceptably in that direction.

R. Pollack said...

That should probably be "imperceptibly," obviously enough. Take it as a parody of 18th century English (unalienable, etc.)

Ben Guest said...

I never said I was against the US opposing occupations. I said that Reagan’s illegal support of the mujhadeen was stupid (which it was, history has clearly shown this). One of my supporting reasons was that the occupation of Afghanistan was doomed to fail (which it was, history has clearly shown this). Don’t take this to mean I don’t support US action in every occupation.